I can’t begin to give any sort of coherent overview of this rambling, sinuous, insightful journey into the bush. The book is as multifaceted and as full of flickering visions as the bush itself.
Watson begins with his own rural family – Gippsland dairy farmers – but soon sets off in many different directions. Watson’s bush is no iconic image, held up for unquestioning patriotic worship. Rather the bush as Watson describes it truly is a place, as Dorothea Mackellar described, of both beauty and terror; often at the same time.
Watson does not spare his readers – the ‘disbursement’ of Aborigines; the bushies’ children dying of scurvy; the pillaged environment – but nor does he stint on his evocative descriptions of place, fauna, people and landscape.
This is a beautifully written essay that comprehensively explores the landscape, the characters, the history, the myths, the animals, the stereotypes, the atrocities and the grace of the Australian bush.
All I can give you is five reasons to enjoy The Bush by Don Watson. But there are so many more than five…
1. For Watson’s insightful and witty exploration of ambiguity.
The bush being so many different things, to speak of it as one place is a heroic assumption, as it is for modern folk to call themselves ‘bushies’, or for anyone to claim to speak on its behalf, or to maintain that it can be represented by anything they choose to call an icon, be it an old Southern Cross windmill or the Member for Capricornia’s hat. In the modern sense the bush means everything and therefore almost nothing. It is nine-tenths nonsense. As it did in the beginning, the looseness of the term speaks not only for the difficulty of defining something so various and changeable, but for the way the landscape often overwhelmed both our ability and our desire to understand.
2. For Watson’s clear-eyed descriptions of the environmental damage undertaken in the name of scientific progress.
What Europeans have done to the bush is atrocious by any measure, rational or not. Along with my somewhat guilty sense that I owe much of my fortunate life to a host of destructive acts, the scale of past atrocities dismays me. We are all, to some degree, implicated in them. It seems to follow that we’re obliged to refrain from throwing more than a handful of well-aimed stones, but equally to do a share of the necessary repairs.
3. For an exploration of the Australian psyche.
We could begin by examining the received wisdom about the bush being melancholy, silent, perverse, a nursery of weird souls and sterling male associations – just in case all this time we’ve been projecting. If it turns out that we’re the sullen, unpredictable, dangerous, weird melancholics, and the bush is just the bush and merely abides, we’ll be in a good place to start. Close examination might reveal that the bush is not a dangerous neurotic, that drought and all the other defects in the country are really defects in our thinking, and even that mateship, which is built and exercised less on our love of the bush than on our fight with it, is half humbug and baloney.
4. For a host of historical insights.
[Regarding soldier settlement schemes] Trouble was, much of the land would have tested the strongest men, and admirable soldiers though they were, many of them were not strong, and many of them were damaged.
5. For fearless discussion of the murder of Aborigines.
“…in Australia they talked in whispers, covered their tracks, pretended it didn’t happen. The bush is tainted with this cowardice.”
My sincere thanks to Bill, who gave me this book for my birthday. It’s a treasure.
Soldier settlement isn’t much thought about these days but when I was at school in the bush (or should that be ‘the bush’?) in the 60s most of my school mates were from soldier settlement farms. These blocks of 90 to 120 acres were fat cattle country carved from traditional estates of 10 or 20 thousand acres. Think Malcolm Fraser and Nareen. And although it’s grinding work milking 100 cows most of these ex soldiers made a reasonable living, though this was not always the case in the drier regions of NSW and Qld.
Compare this with the largely racist outcry in the Australian press when Mugabe attempted to break up the big white controlled land holdings in Zimbabwe for soldier settlement there.
Thanks for your thoughtful comments Buffalo, and welcome to Adventures in Biography. You’ve encouraged me to explore Watson’s footnotes. He explains his sources. “For soldier settlers in Victoria, Marilyn Lake The Limits of Hope, for South Australia, Karen George, A Place of Their Own [I can’t get italics to work, sorry!]. The Pike Royal Commission into soldier settlement in Queensland in 1929 concluded that 40 per cent of settlers failed…[others claimed that] at least 60 percent had given up by 1929 when the scheme was abandoned, and of the 40 per cent remaining many more walked off in the years of the Great Depression.”
I’ll put that Marilyn Lake text on my TBR list and see if her views match your memories. But you are right – much more fertile land in the Western District.
BTW my favourite book on the bush is Eve Langley’s The Pea Pickers. Intensely evocative, and I have no hesitation in recommending it.
It’s on my TBR list too!
[…] she is just the farmer’s wife. This is especially so in Australia, where the myth of ‘the bush‘ as a male place is entrenched. Think of a Hollywood western – the covered wagons […]